Monsanto Says Potato, Nervous Public Says Mutant Tuber

Fearful consumers are raising a ruckus over genetically modified foods, and biotech companies are fighting back.

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Don't get them mad or you just might find some unpleasant surprises in your next baked Idaho. After a run of bad press, biotech companies are taking the offensive to save face, not to mention profits, in a potentially explosive market. Friday's New York Times reports a surge of public relations maneuverings from a number of biotech giants, including Monsanto, Norvartiscoei and DuPont, to put a friendlier face on their modified- food crops here in the U.S. Opponents charge that by changing the makeup of foods to increase productivity or enhance favorable characteristics, the companies are forcing "Frankenstein" crops on the public. Biotech companies have been hush-hush about their products in the U.S., hoping to avoid a repeat of their ill-fated marketing campaigns in Europe, which were met with damaging protests and plummeting profits. But a rising tide of public distrust in the U.S. has prompted a broad campaign to help define the debate on more favorable terms here.

That may not be easy. Some scientists and consumer advocates charge that biotech companies have not proven their products are safe, citing studies showing lasting hazardous effects of genetically altered plants on the environment. And while some of the alarm surrounding modified foods may be overblown, as the biotech companies allege, consumers' deep-seated fears are not easily allayed. "Lots of people have a visceral, knee-jerk reaction to the idea of eating a rewired plant," says TIME science writer Jeffrey Kluger. "It's not uncommon to have second thoughts about eating a tomato that's been injected with flounder genes to make it more cold-resistant."

Fears like this can translate directly into poor market performance. Disastrous sales in the European market may have scared some sense into the biotech companies, but their new p.r. campaigns may be a few bushels shy of a load. "It could be too late for them in Europe," Kluger says. "Now, these companies are just trying to save the game in the U.S."